The Rubik Cube was arguably the greatest fad of all time. Twenty years on Firebox.com asks how a little lump of plastic managed to captivate the world.
Dusseldorff, Germany, 1981. Frau Schmidt files for divorce from her husband Gundar. She no longer feels able to share him with the new love of his life. Maybe if he had been cheating on her with another woman they could have sat down and worked it out, but this was something much more serious. Herr Schmidt had fallen in love with a plastic, multi-coloured cube about the size of a man's fist - the Rubik Cube. So involved had he become with the intricacies of the puzzle that he rarely spoke to his wife and, she complained, when he finally dragged himself to bed that he was too exhausted to pay her any attention.
Connecticut, USA, the same year. Fans wait impatiently for a football game to begin. The problem? Bob Blake, the home side's star player has yet to take the field. He is still in the dressing room trying to solve the Rubik Cube.
These two stories, together with the fact that they made headlines in the first place, demonstrate the powerful influence this little lump of plastic could exercise on the solid and cultured life of the eighties. They might be extreme examples but many of the two hundred million people who bought a cube between 1980 and 1983 will be able to sympathise with Messrs Schmidt and Blake.
Why? OK, rearranging the colours on a cube isn't a bad way to fill a spare five minutes but surely it should have been impossible for such a simple concept to capture the world's imagination on such a scale. According to Ben Jones, cube enthusiast and former finalist in the UK Rubik Cube championships, it was the very simplicity of the idea that formed a large part of its addictive appeal:
"You look at it and think you'll be able to solve it soon enough if you think it through. Of course it doesn't happen that way". Eventually Jones, who first took up the cube as a wrist exercise after a sports injury, filled up several notebooks with formulas for finding the fastest route to a solution.
Graham Kremer, whose father Tom first introduced the puzzle to the Western world, agrees:
"The idea behind the cube is a fairly simple one, yes, but the solution certainly isn't. There are 43 quintillion possible positions you can have, only one of which is correct. You could play with it for years and never run out of positions."
In short, the Rubik Cube possesses one of the hallmarks of a classic game - it is easy to learn but almost impossible to master. This was first picked up on in the west by Tibor Lacai Hungarian Ã©migrÃ© who chanced upon the cube while visiting a toy fair in Budapest in 1978. It was already exercising its hypnotic fascination on a large slice of the Hungarian population but was still unknown outside that country. Lacai took it to a fair in Nuremberg, Germany the next year. There he met Tom Kremer, of the Seven Towns Toy Company who undertook to promote it in Europe and America. According to son Graham he initially came up against massive scepticism:
"For a start its marketing strengths were not immediately obvious. It was seen as a puzzle for intellectuals and mathematicians rather than the wider public. The main obstacle, however, was the cost. The actual mechanism that works the cube is very intricate and expensive to produce, especially with the barriers that then existed between the West and communist Hungary."
Eventually Kremer persuaded representatives from the Ideal Toy Company in the US to come to Hungary and witness for themselves the cube's ubiquity in the streets and cafes there. They were sufficiently impressed to place an order for one million late in 1979. The public response was immediate and astonishing. One million was not merely enough as sales rose to two or three hundred times that amount over the next three years. By contrast, says Kremer, Monopoly currently sells at a rate of five million a year. Production centres spread from Hungary to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Costa Rica and Brazil. According to the Seven Towns Toy Company possibly as many as one in three households in the West possessed at least one cube by 1982.
"The attraction to mathematicians and students of logic is obvious. Those 43 quintillion possibilities provide limitless possibilities for exploration and analysis. Articles on the cube were soon appearing in publications such as New Scientist and Scientific American and it is still a common prop in undergraduate studies on group theory. Mathematicians have yet to pin down the elusive 'God's Algorithm' - the shortest possible route by which a cube can be unscrambled from a state of total disorder. Fifty turns is the current minimum although some think there is scope to go as low as twenty.
Where the puzzle confounded the sceptics was in the simultaneous attraction to members of the public from all walks of life and especially adolescents. Its status as a landmark of popular culture was assured with its adoption by youths all over the world as a fashion essential:
"Everyone had one," remembers Jones, "and if you had one and were obviously making progress with it people gathered round" a description that will ring true for many of us who were aged between eight and eighteen in the early eighties. And for our parents it was something to wheel out after Sunday lunch, a talking point between friends and relatives and an opportunity for self depreciating jokes.
The elegance of the design was another factor in ensuring the cube's place in history. Both Kremer and Jones speak of the striking nature of the toy with its plain, bold colours and precise symmetrical lines. In its scrambled state it is no less impressive, with its dancing colours and its analogies to order and chaos. Jones describes the first time he saw the cube solved as "intensely moving". Erno Rubik, the reclusive Professor of Architecture who originally designed it as a study aid has even related the cubes 3 by 3 form to the cycles of birth, life and death; Heaven, earth and hell. Whether you go along with this or not the New York Museum of fine art was sufficiently impressed by the aesthetic qualities of the cube to put it on display there at the height of the craze.
When all is said and done however that is what it remained - a craze. It could not last forever and there came a time when everyone who wanted a cube had bought one. With the release in 1983 of The Return of the Jedi the youths of the west returned their attention to Star Wars figures and associated memorabilia. In that year cube sales collapsed and the co-operative in Hungary that had originally produced them went bust. Manufacturers kept the ship afloat for a few years with spin-offs intending to create new fads such as Rubik Snake and Rubik Magic. 1983 can be seen however as the year in which the incredible phenomenon of the cube came to an end.
It never sunk completely from the public's imagination though:
1985. Seven Towns Toy Company acquired the rights to the Rubik Cube and starts to reintroduce into the toy market.
1990. Diamond Cutlass International mark the 15th anniversary of the invention of the cube with a $1,000,000 working replica made of 18ct Gold and set with 185cyts of precious stones.
Edinburgh 1992. Prime Minister John Major uses the cube as an accessible way to demonstrate complexities of the Maastricht treaty.
1996. In the USA 300,000 cubes were sold.
Are all the ingredients in place for a cube renaissance? Ben Jones thinks not. "With all the interest generated before there are now lots of books acting as a home guide to solving it. You didn't have that last time, it was all uncharted territory."
It is very difficult to imagine the cube craze returning with anything like the intensity of the early eighties frenzy. What's more likely though is the long overdue emergence of a totally new type of puzzle. Something so complex and absorbing the whole world can once again work to complete it. Watch this space.